Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Last Year Killed My Trust

I trust most other people as much as I trust the Joker right now

The last four years, and the last year in particular, have reduced my circle of trust considerably. I get the feeling this is not an uncommon thing.

Trump's ascendancy was bad enough. Conservatives I've long disagreed with but respected showed me that deep down they were indifferent (at best) to fascism as long as it delivered what they wanted. It's made me question my trust in them, and even my trust in my own ability to see people for who they are. I at least thought (naively) back in 2016 that Trump's behavior once he took power might alienate them, but they gleefully doubled down. All of the lawbreaking, racism, family separations, and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths from COVID only strengthened their ardor. The naked attempt to overthrow democracy on January 6th and the weeks leading up to the insurrection was met with silence (at best) or obfuscations and what-aboutism. 

Despite all of that, COVID has eroded my trust in others far more. Every day I have commuted by train I have had to ride with people nose-hanging, chin-strapping, or outright refusing to wear masks. Every scroll through social media shows all the trips and visits and parties made with complete disinterest for the well-being of others. So many conversations reveal a lack of concern with the virus or even denial of its potency. Multiple people have told me of friends dying after contracting COVID, then sharply telling me "but that's NOT what killed them!" Others refuse to get vaccinated. 

More personally, I have to hear teachers being attacked and dragged by frustrated parents who don't even consider the effect these statements have on me. (This goes for social media and more direct convos.) 

All of this makes me feel like a sucker for trusting other people, and I was a distrustful person to begin with. I honestly don't know how I am going to be able to go through my day to day life in these circumstances. So much of quotidian existence relies on the trust that must be invested in others. I wonder sometimes if my standards are too high, if I am an insufferable killjoy, or more hypocritical than I realize. I don't think I am, but maybe you can correct me. Or maybe as a cishetero white guy I am having to confront something other people have been forced to reckon with far before this.

So far I have been leaning hard on the people I know can be trusted. They've been a rock for me in this. It just pains me to know that when this is all finally over I will be incapable of going through life the same way again. I am trying my best to forgive, but it seems impossible to forget. 

New Podcast Episode on Crate Digging

 I have made good on my promises and kept recording podcasts on my old bi-weekly schedule. This time Old Dad's Records breaks format and I talk about all the things I bought when I was finally fully vaxxed and able to browse the record store again. Man that was a good feeling. I talk Thin Lizzy, Flamin' Groovies, Roxy Music and Tangerine Dream, plus give a recommend to Angel Olsen's latest. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Phi Collins, Master of Ennui

Yesterday I made a quick trip to the supermarket and lo and behold, Phil Collins' "One More Night" was playing over the PA. I laughed to myself because I think this song has been Muzak ever since it was released in 1985. 

As I browsed the produce and shelves I realized there's good reason for its staying power as musical grocery store wallpaper. Grocery stores are melancholy places, at least in my estimation. (The Clash and Allen Ginsburg agree with me.) The bright lighting and array of consumer products feel like a false promise of contentment. All the aisles of food weirdly remind me of my mortality and the impermanence of existence. So many uprooted plants and so much dead flesh. The low emotional ache of that Phil Collins song was just perfect.

Phil Collins was an unlikely pop star, a short stocky balding guy who had been a drummer for a prog rock band. His voice is warm and distinctive, but hardly overpowering. But that warmth of his voice and of his persona are key. He was not an otherworldly figure like Prince, Madonna. or Michael Jackson. He was a divorced dad who liked Hawaiian shirts and corny jokes.

He was also able to channel the daily ache of modern life, that low level ennui in the background of our souls. I think smart phones and social media are so addictive because they drown out that tinnitus of the soul so effectively. Back in the 80s and 90s we were stuck without this aid in all of those idle moments -like grocery store shopping- when our minds might decide to replay our regrets on repeat. Phil Collins' music was made for those moments in ways that other pop songs weren't.

Here's his top five most aching songs, perfect for contemplating existence at the grocery store, being stuck in traffic, or easing the dread of a dental appointment.

One More Night

I already mentioned this one, which is just straight up melancholy. "I can't wait forever" feels like an existential cry of despair.

Against All Odds

"Against All Odds" was described by the dear departed Yacht Rock podcast as prime "Divorce-core." He's putting it all out on the line here. "Take a look at me now/ It's just an empty space" is middle-aged depression at its most real. 

Take Me Home

This might be Collins' most affecting of all of his songs. If you've ever been exiled or had to travel far from home you will immediately understand this song. There's a poignancy to "Please take me home" as opposed to "I want to go home." It's that feeling that you have no control over your situation. Evidently it was sung from the point of view of someone in a mental institution. Heavy stuff for a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and fedora.


I know this is cheating, because it's a Genesis song. However, I think Collins was using it to set the template for his sad sack solo hits. It's about someone who gets stood up for a date and then ghosted. (Yes, that happened before cell phones, too.) But perhaps the misunderstanding is rooted in the fact that we are all windowless monads, inherently unknowable to each other.

In the Air Tonight

This song has had the most staying power of all of Collins' work, mostly due to the drum break, which is one of the great all time surprises in pop song history. Let's not forget the lyrical content, so full of heartache, betrayal, and angst. It's like something out of a Joy Division song, but the edges sanded off that it can play while being put on hold with the insurance company.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Spring Cleaning

My spring break has just begun and I have not felt this unburdened since August. Christmas break had its own unique stresses and it took place in the midst of the worst of the pandemic. Now I am fully vaccinated and the weather is improving. Just this weekend I converted my screened-in back porch from a winter storage space to a warm weather hangout spot. 

While doing so yesterday I couldn't help but to think of the last time I cleaned the porch. It was at the start of quarantine, and back then I told myself I would have to keep busy around the house as a way to keep from losing my mind. I didn't just tidy up the porch, I gave it a ridiculously deep cleaning well beyond my usual standards. At that stage of quarantine the enormity of the situation gave me a kind of manic energy that found its expression in some pretty unlikely ways.

A year later that spirit is pretty much gone. I'm tired, both in body and soul. My job and my life have become one constant triage with constant fires to put out. There was a sort of excitement of rising to the challenge last year when I would have to get up from my computer after teaching a Zoom class to get lunch on for my kids while frantically responding to students taking an asynchronous class. Now when I have to do this I wish so hard that it would just finally end. 

It's all become a blur, day after day of working 11 hours at my job while tutoring my children and cooking and cleaning through it all. Except for the two days a week that I have to ride the train into the city and come home after it's done dead on my feet and sometimes still needing to cajole my children into doing their homework.

My spring break couldn't come soon enough because I think I was getting close to the point of exhaustion. That's usually the case even during a normal school year. And like in those years the time from then to summer is the final stretch, a thought that sustains many a teacher through April. I am trying to use spring break not just to clean my house, but to clean out my mind too. Maybe some time sitting on my back porch will help with that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

New Podcast Episode (Finally)

After months of overwork I finally got on top of my life enough again to revive my podcast, Old Dad's Records. In case you are new to my blog, it's where I discuss an old song that's become musical wallpaper, an album from my stack of old records, and then new music I'm digging. The latter is to prove that I am not merely a sad old dad.

This episode, appropriately enough deals with the Rolling Stones, the ultimate dad rock band. I start with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," their statement of repurpose after time in the psychedelic wilderness. After that I consider Their Satanic Majesties Request and defend that time in the wilderness a little. After all that I give a recommendation for LA Witch's "Fire Starter," which has a hard riff groove worthy of Keef.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Neoliberalism With a Stick of Gum (The 80s Baseball Card Boom)

 Tropics of Meta was kind enough to publish a recent piece I wrote about baseball cards and neoliberalism. Check it out here.

Here's an excerpt:

"That decades-old unopened boxes of baseball cards can be acquired so easily and cheaply tells the story of speculation run amok. My first investment portfolio was an early lesson in capitalism’s shady promises, collapsing bubble and all. Ironically, so many people bought and saved so many baseball cards thinking they would be valuable that they made them worthless. This is not just another story of boom and bust, however. Baseball cards in the 80s are a fine metaphor for neoliberalism’s triumph in that decade, from deregulation to speculation to intensified stratification and inequality."

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Can a Wedge Be Driven Into the Republican Base?

Randy Newman figured what really makes conservatives tick fifty years ago

Today I saw some interesting polling numbers that showed that lower-income Republicans were in favor of Biden's 1.9 trillion economic recovery bill, while middle and upper-income Republicans were opposed. (Democrats are highly in favor across income levels.) These numbers piqued my interest because I have long thought of the Republican base as being far more solid than that of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have tended to be a fractious coalition whereas the Republicans have coalesced around a common ideology.

One very important ideological element has been trickle-down economics. By sponsoring massive relief and spending last year, Trump and the Republicans were flouting their party's "fiscal responsibility" narrative even more so than usual. Many of their voters who got tangible help from that relief seem willing to break from the party line on trickle down. As we have seen, Republicans will let the money taps run when they are in office, so it's hard to drive a wedge on this issue in those times. However, with Republican politicians shifting gears back to austerity an opportunity may present itself.

At the same time, I wonder if the Republican Party's defense against this attack is still impregnable. What lashes their party together is not the ideas of Hayek and Friedman but resentment. Everyone in their group from the Bible thumpers to libertine libertarians is united in their hatred of liberals. This is why the Dr Seuss bullshit is so effective. Conservatives go around every day thinking that liberals are out to corrupt society and dominate them. They'd literally rather die than do something a liberal wants, just look at the anti-mask stuff. 

It's hard to draw people from a political faction that seems more like a cult. Even harder when challenging a white nationalist framing that so many on the Right embrace, and which can override other concerns among working class white people.

Seen from this perspective, a difference of opinion about the role of government in helping its people is actually pretty ancillary to the conservative cause. The more respectable members of the movement have been allowed for decades to put on their bow ties and go on television and act like they are some association of principled thinkers. In reality the Birchers completed the Long March and contrary William F Buckley's narrative, ended up victorious in the end. 

This is another way for me to say while I am surprised to see a potential wedge in the Republican Party, I doubt much can be done with it.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Scott Walker, "It's Raining Today" (Track of the Week)

With the Covidversary upon us I am remembering where my head was a year ago at this time in that moment when it went from a nascent fear to reality. Quarantine was strangely fortuitous, since it came right as I was hitting a stress-induced breaking point. The crisis helped wipe the old crises off of my plate pretty fast. 

Last February and early March I was listening to a lot of orchestral pop music from the 1960s. I even made a playlist called "Sophisticated Dad Chill Commute" to listen to on my way home from work. I also happened to get really into Scott Walker (not the Wisconsin politician) at the time. His early records brought an avant-garde, poetic sensibility to the sweeping symphonic arrangements.

Last weekend, right before my second vaccination shot, I suddenly got back in the Scott Walker mood. Some of it was probably due to thinking about the anniversary and what it meant on the eve of my deliverance, but a lot was also just the eternal mood of late February and early March.

This is by far my least favorite time of the year. Winter keeps holding on, and what little exists of spring sometimes only comes in the form of heavy rains and howling winds. For me it also coincides with Lenten fasting. It is a time of painful anticipation before sunshine and, importantly for a teacher, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of the school year. 

There is a dull ache forever in the background of my soul every March, and it sounds exactly like the buzzing strings of Scott Walker's "It's Raining Today." Last week I got to the city too early to line up for my shot, so I wandered around Central Park in the drizzle, listening to this song over and over again. 

It's fitting that quarantine began in March, the purgatory month. We have been in this purgatory for a year now. Every now and I then I can't imagine getting through this without losing my grip, and have to remind myself that spring is coming. In March you know it so close, but as for today, it's raining. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Teachers Need Consideration, Too

From the beginning of the pandemic educators have been hearing a constant message that we need to be extra patient with our students, to be careful of workload, and to generally go out of our way to be even more understanding than usual when they are unable to complete their work.

And you know what? I 100% agree with this. I tried to have all this in mind in the Before Times, but I have taken it even more to heart in the last year. I have reduced the work I assign, willing to lose coverage to benefit my students' mental health. I have been less stingy in handing out good grades and a softer touch with suboptimal student work. Right now there are much bigger fish to fry than holding the line between a B+ and A-.

However, educators do not seem to be getting the same consideration. Teaching in a pandemic is inherently much harder, at least if you want your teaching to be good. It requires converting every single lesson into a new format, arranging all of the electronic platforms, and teaching over Zoom, which is like swimming with a twenty pound weight attached to your ankle. Teaching hybrid might give needed actual contact with students, but it is physically and mentally exhausting to be in real space and cyberspace simultaneously. 

I regularly pass out on the couch at the end of the day. I typically work 10-11 hour days during the week, with a few hours of work on the weekend, too. I am starting to see my own children wear out and struggle in virtual school, but by the time I am able to help them with their studies I have spent all of my energy. 

My family is doing all of this with an almost impossible hill to climb. While my children's school remains virtual and I go in twice a week to mine, my wife has to come in five days a week. You try to figure that out. Teacher-parents have basically been told to go jump in a lake by just about everyone. No government subsidies for child care, no coordination between school districts, no child care assistance from our employers. 

On top of all of this teachers are still going through the same evaluation process from their schools. They still have the same load of meetings. (How else will administrators be able to justify their existence, after all?) Sometimes they even get browbeaten for not talking more in meetings at the end of a ten hour day spent teaching over Zoom and juggling child care responsibilities. 

Our reward for all this work is going to be layoffs, pay cuts, and resentment from the public. The attacks on teachers unions are already back and you can't wade into a conversation about school reopenings without somebody shitting all over teachers. I personally think the science on the safety of re-opening is pretty clear but I won't join with local people trying to reopen the schools here because I am not going to make common cause with those who wish to destroy my family's livelihood. It's bad enough to be doing all this extra work in trying circumstances, being treated with contempt as a result is unbearable. 

So please, give us a break before we break.